I was introduced to Mike and Frankie nearly nine years ago. While their situation was different than mine (they lived in a rural middle American suburb and we lived in an urban neighborhood of Boston), our similar family dynamic made them special to me. We would spend 22 minutes together each week and they would share their lives. I would identify with their frustrations in raising their oldest through High School and college and beyond. I would sympathize with the challenges of raising an optimistic but clumsy daughter who tried everything to fit in but never quite succeeded. I would commiserate with the difficulties that come from a unique younger son, complete with quirks and tics. But next week they are departing and I will miss their stories of their ordinary life of ordinary struggles.
My favorite show, The Middle, will broadcast its series finale on Tuesday, and I feel like I am losing a friend. Something about the Hecks from Orson, Indiana always rang true for me. They didn’t have a ‘very special episode’ but instead relied on real life circumstances — a folding lawn chair at the dining room table, floating anniversaries, kids fighting in the backseat and ‘borrowing’ the church van for months. The kids made holes in their walls, their computers couldn’t access family photos and they ate fast food in front of the TV. It was a pleasure to watch a family on TV that was much, maybe too much, like my own.
There was a comfort in tuning in every week, sending that someone understood your struggle. It was a picture of life rarely seen on television today, a situation-comedy where episodes revolved around the challenges of the ordinary: living on a budget, dreading the school conferences and bake-sales and loving one another through the trials of life. There were moments of passion (for things like the Indianapolis Colts and the Wrestlerettes) but little politics. There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Through it all, there was an underlying theme of familial love – even in the midst of familial discord.
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Romans 15:30
I believe it to be a blessing to God to be understood, to know that there is someone somewhere that ‘gets’ you. That was what God did for me through The Middle. Although they were not an actual family but a fictional clan with great writers, they were real to me. Their struggles were real. Their victories were real. I know, for their life, in many ways, is mine. Their life is the same as many in the church: those who love their kids and can’t stand their kids, those who have broken dishwashers and broken dreams but refuse to give up, those who are simply doing their best even when their best is not great. Thank you, Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue and Brick for joining so many in the struggle.
I am sure that I will see the Hecks again as The Middle is already in syndication. I will sit and remember that there are people, real and make-believe, that share my values and concerns and dreams. Perhaps there will be another family I can befriend next season. There are the Ottos from Westport, CT that might remind me that we are never alone.
According to the National Retail Federation, the average Mother’s Day shopper will spend $180, or a total of $23.1 billion. That is a lot of flowers and jewelry. It seems that we all want to celebrate the blessing God has given us through giving us mothers. In recognition of Mother’s Day on Sunday, allow me to share the story of a remarkable mom who lived a few thousand years ago. She was poor, widowed and responsible for a child. Things have gotten so bad for her that she had given up hope. But God has other plans for her and her child.
We really know little about this mother. While we do not know her name or her lineage, we do know she was married, but her husband died and left her with no source of income: according to the scriptures, all she had to her name was a jar of flour and a pitcher of oil. We also know that she was not part of the “People of God”: she was an “unclean” Gentile. Lastly, we know that she was commanded by God to help a certain prophet of God named Elijah: she was commissioned to use that last of all she had to feed this stranger.
Before I conclude the story, allow me to digress. I am not at all surprised that God used a mother, especially a single mother, to save Elijah. Is there any other class of human being so willing to sacrifice as a mom? When there are five mouths and four slices of pie, it is the mom who says, “I’m too full from dinner for dessert; you guys have it.” When it is three AM and thundering, it is the mom who gets displaced so that her child can be comforted. She picks up the underwear, wipes up the barf and cleans up the bathroom. There is seemingly no need too demanding or distance too far to travel for a mom.
Getting back to the story, this mother prepares her last meal for herself, her son and her visitor. But the flour and oil never run out. She and her household (including the guest) were fed for three years, miraculously. Despite the fact that they were in the midst of a global famine, God was able to meet her needs. Just when one might think everything is going to get better, tragedy strikes when the son of this woman becomes ill and stops breathing. No one would blame her for her outburst:
She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” 1 Kings 17:18
After all she had sacrificed, was this really how her story was going to end? No. Elijah immediately cries out to God and her son’s life is restored to him. Then they all lived happily ever after (though not together).
I thank God that the mothers I am most familiar with (both biological and metaphorical) have yet to lose hope. They sacrificed for the sake of those they loved, expressed outrage when something hurt those they loved and never gave up hope for those they loved. Some of that has to do with their personal resolve – they are all formidable people of character – but some of it has to do with their faith in the God who can resource and restore them as He did for a Phoenician widow, her son and her house-guest.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who have given more than they will ever get back from their families.
There was an article in the New York Times that opined about the costs and benefits of present-day conveniences. According to columnist Time Wu, conveniences are “more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks”. Conveniences come in a nearly endless number of forms, everything from appliances (washers, dryers and microwaves) to technologies (digital streaming, cell phones and search engines). They save us time, toil and treasure. The world of my childhood would be foreign soil to my ten-year old son; the convenience of debit cards instead of cash or checks, the convenience of homework at home with Google and Wikipedia instead of researching at the library with the World Book Encyclopedia, the convenience of GPS and EZPass instead of glove compartment maps and a cupful of quarters. Conveniences make life better.
However, there is another side to conveniences, a less beneficial side that warrants our attention. As Wu writes, “With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.” Ultimately, there is a benefit to inconvenience, whether it is getting lost and discovering the pathway back to civilization or baking a pie from scratch instead of ordering one online through Uber Eats. It is rewarding to toil and use reason. We might become better people because we are required to wait or, worse yet, to go without.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. Luke 14:33
Discipline is never convenient. Eating healthy takes effort: making a salad takes longer than tearing the foil off a Pop Tart. Exercise takes effort: spending time at the gym will be more demanding than spending time on the couch. Education takes effort: solving a pesky equation with a pencil will take more time than watching a YouTube video of someone else solving for x. The Christian life is no different. When Jesus taught about the demands of discipleship, He told his followers to consider the costs. He called His followers to live a life which included inconvenience. He told them to give more than demanded, work longer than most and sacrifice greater than merely necessary.
Most of the things that make life easier are convenient. Most of the things that make life better are inconvenient. The question for each of us is whether we want easier or we want better. Do we want the ease of microwave turkey or the goodness of Thanksgiving dinner? Do we want the ease of hearing an explanation or the goodness of researching it ourselves? Do you want the ease of activism by hashtag or the goodness of laboring for righteousness? When we are passionate about something, the Cliff Notes will not suffice; we will want to invest our blood, sweat and tears to pursue it.
Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, was quoted in Wu’s piece as saying, “Convenience decides everything.” Maybe he’s right in general. I do that hope he is wrong about us.
Last week was school vacation for our boys and I had a brilliant idea: we could do a jigsaw puzzle together. On Monday morning, in the rain, I went out to the store and bought a 1,000-piece puzzle of a beautiful winter scene and brought it home. We had the border done before lunch and began to fit together the rest. That was twelve days ago, and we still have not finished. It turns out that there is a whole lot of white – snow, roofs, mountains – and the puzzle is hard. Really hard. The boys have given up helping us finish putting all the pieces together and now I am beginning to fear that we will never be able to use our coffee table again.
What seemed at the time like a fun, family bonding activity has become exceeding difficult. As I sit in front of the unfinished puzzle, I feel the frustration well up within me: I know it all fits together, but I cannot for the life of me seem to place any of the pieces. Perhaps I am victim of an elaborate practical joke – I can hear the snickering of the worker at some jigsaw puzzle factory as she throws eighteen unrelated pieces into my box. There are pieces that seem to match the color but do not interlock and others that ‘sort of’ interlock but do not match the color. Has anyone else ever thought how easy it would be if there were numbers, differentiating columns and rows, on the backs of all the puzzle pieces?
Alas, there are no numbers. There is no cheat code. All I have between now and the puzzle’s completion is trial and error. All I have to guide me is the picture on the box (which, in this case, is extremely small of such a large puzzle and cropped on the sides so that it offers no help toward the edges). In my pursuit of my goal I have resorted to a game I like to call, “Is This Right? No. Is This Right? No.” But I am tenacious (a more virtuous word than stubborn) and will one day finish this puzzle, enabling my family to eat once again in the living room.
This puzzle is a lot like my life. It has easily recognizable boundaries. It has a cohesive whole. It is made up of tiny, incomplete glimpses of colors and voids. It is designed so that all the pieces will fit together eventually. It is at times frustrating and at times fabulous. For those blessed enough to realize it, we are given a picture to the finished product for reference. And it is, when completed, a work of art.
While I may not know how all the pieces fit together yet, the one who created the puzzle (and the one who created me) does. I am confident that my God will form my life into a masterpiece, a stunning work of art full of light and shadow. Perhaps He is even using this infernal puzzle to do it.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
No one would have thought less of her had she dropped out. It was cold. It was windy. It was pouring rain. It was the Boston Marathon. It was a place she’d been before, including 2011 when she ran a personal best and still finished two seconds behind the winner. Nearly thirty minutes into the race, Desiree Linden tapped fellow American marathoner Shalane Flanagan and said:
“Hey, I think I’m going to drop out today, so if you need any help with anything, let me know. I’m happy to block the wind, whatever it may be.”
But she persisted. She and Flanagan continued to put one foot in front of the other. The weather conditions sufficiently slowed down the pace of the elite runners and she continued to run. She remained with the pack for the next 15 miles and then thought that this might in fact be her day. With a burst of breakaway speed, she separated from the rest of the runners and ran the final five miles alone, crossing the finish line more than four minutes before any other woman.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. – Luke 18:1 (NIV)
While most of us will not run the Boston Marathon, we are all required to run the race of life. And there are days when the course conditions will cause us to contemplate dropping out and to think about giving up on our dreams or giving in to our difficulties. In numerous places, the Scriptures encourage us to not give up.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9 (NIV)
We can benefit from persisting. We need not give up praying, even when our prayers seem to us like we are hounding God with our pressing needs. We need not give up doing good, even when our efforts seem to us unproductive and fruitless. We need not give up doing what is right, even when our faith seems to us as stagnant and stale. We need not give up going to church, even when our gathering seems to us as irrelevant or pointless. There is a blessing from tenacity that only those who endure can enjoy.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. – 1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV)
The performance of Des Linden ought to serve as a reminder of the rewards for those who persist. We may still win the race. We will have our prayers heard and our needs will be met. We will reap a harvest of good in the world. We will save ourselves and those around us. We will encourage one another and equip one another for the difficulties inherent in life. We will finish because we did not quit. We might even finish first.
…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)
May we all see the laurel and medal as we have waiting for us at the finish line.
There is a person in my social circle (I will not divulge their identity) who regularly calls me by something other than my name. This person calls me “Rev.”. I appreciate the title as an acknowledgment of my years of schooling and my professional standing. I do not appreciate it as a nickname. I have tried everything to get this person to cease using this nomenclature – asking nicely (and then not as nicely), calling them by an equally clever occupational title, ignoring their solicitations when addressed in this manner – and, as yet, nothing has worked. So, I grin and bear this salutation.
While I am confident that the person I am speaking of will not read this post, allow me the time to offer my rationale for why I am upset by the nickname “Rev.”. First, I am more complex as a person than is represented through being addressed by what I do. Second, I struggle with sin too greatly to be entitled with calling myself someone who ought to be revered. Lastly, I do not wish others to address me in a way that conveys that I will be the spiritual, moral or biblical expert at all times. So, please, I prefer that you call me something other than “Rev.”.
As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” Acts 10:25-26
Let me take my last reason for averting this title first. Just as a doctor would not like every conversation to be relating to her profession (as in, “Hey, you’re a doctor; let me show you something weird”), I prefer not to “work” at every social gathering I attend. I am not simply present to pray or evangelize or compete in an informal game of Bible Jeopardy. I am so much more (and so much less) than a cultural touchpoint representing godliness in the world.
This brings me to the second reason: I am not as good or mature as this title reflects. The term “Reverend” is believed to be the anglicization of a Latin verb (revereri) meaning “to be revered or respected.” I am not proud to admit it, but if you were able to hear my thoughts or to stand by my side for 24 hours, “Reverend” would not be the word you would use to describe me. We all face the same struggle to keep the faith and I would be disingenuous to say I deserve the nickname I’ve been given.
I am so much more than what I do. Yes, I am an ordained minister. But I am also a crossword and game show enthusiast, a burger lover and an observer of Oscar®-worthy films. I am a fan of Boston-area professional sports and a foe of strawberries and bowling. I am a husband, parent and child. I have strong opinions about politics, condiments and manatees. I am, like you, more of a human being than a human doing.
Like it or not, all of us are too complex to be called by our job title. So, let’s keep the use of “Rev.” to Sunday mornings, when I am ‘on the job’. Most other times, I prefer to be called Michael (or “Skippy”, since I am so smooth).
If you were to look outside my office window, you would see that the forsythia bushes are currently in bloom. Over the next few days, little yellow flowers will cover the ‘brown sticks’ protruding from the ground. These flowers will be around for a few weeks and then will then disappear. In our nation’s capital, the cherry blossoms are expected to reach peak bloom over the weekend, lasting just a few days. I am also reminded of the excitement around the city in September, when Fester, the corpse plant cultivated by the Franklin Park Zoo, was expected to bloom – it’s flower lasts only a day or two – but, alas, it never flowered. That is the nature of flowers – here today and gone tomorrow.
What could possibly be the benefit of something that only lasts but a moment? While the flowers that adorned the sanctuary on Easter morning were beautiful and fragrant, they will likely be only a memory in a few weeks. While arrangements of cut flowers and funeral sprays can be pressed and saved, they will wilt and wither far too quickly. Still, with such an ephemeral inventory, floral shops and nurseries accounted for more than $26 billion in annual sales last year. To put that figure in perspective, it is more than twice the income of the National Football League.
Flowers are not an experience, like a vacation in Cancun. Flowers are not a consumable, like a dinner at Top of the Hub. Flowers are frivolous, a bit of whimsy in the world. Perhaps that is why we value them so greatly. They have little utility or function. They are just pretty to look at. Jesus put it this way:
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” Luke 12:27
Flowers serve as a reminder of the limitless imagination of God. There are over 400,000 plant species across the world (which is more than the number of bird, butterfly and bee species combined) which have been conceptualized and created by God. 400,000 species – with multiple varieties – of something unnecessary for our existence. Isn’t God amazing?
The flowers all around us ought to remind us of God’s love for us. Our landscapes could be covered with green leaves (taking for granted that we need the plants’ chlorophyll to complete the process of photosynthesis which, in turn, scrubs our atmosphere of carbon dioxide and replenishes it with oxygen), but splashes of violet, rose, lilac, goldenrod and periwinkle dazzle our eyes. This is simply because God wanted to give us colors. This is because God loves us so much that He wanted us to enjoy and not simply exist. This is because God is greater than we can imagine.
God created delight in our world for no purpose other than our enjoyment. Yes, flowers will wither. But in time, others will take their place, bringing beauty and blithe spirits to those who notice them. Sometimes, the function of an item in God’s creation is nothing more than to bring joy. May we all appreciate the unnecessary diversity of the Almighty’s design this spring and always.
Family members disagree. They argue. They fight. They feud. I witnessed this as a middle child and as a father of four. I could share stories of fighting with my younger brother or of my boys fighting over something or other. Sibling rivalry is nothing new; it is as old as history itself. The first siblings, Cain and Abel, did not get along and fought, with terrible results. Sibling rivalry also rears its ugly head among the followers of Jesus, as is evident in the interaction between siblings Mary and Martha that is recorded in Luke 10:38-42.
It all began with these sisters disagreeing over the proper etiquette in entertaining guests: one sister gave priority to hospitality and the other to conversation. These two women had a difference of focus. Martha focused on serving – Jesus was coming over for dinner and she wanted everything to come together properly. Mary was focused on engaging with Jesus – sitting at his feet listening to everything He was saying. Neither of these women were wrong in their attention, but not everything that holds our focus is necessary.
When our focus is fixed, it becomes difficult to see the periphery clearly. Mary’s sole focus was Jesus and everything else was inconsequential. Martha’s scattered focus was on many things and everything became distracting and disturbing. I cannot recount the number of times I have been troubled with all the details: is the dinner going to be done at the right time, are their any food allergies I am unaware of, is there something I am forgetting? If that happens on a typical Tuesday, what would I be like if the Savior of all people were to visit my home?
Mary had no such turmoil. She was blessed with peace. As Jesus stated,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41–42 (ESV)
She chose the necessary, the good portion, and that enabled her to have peace. In saying this, Jesus is not diminishing all the things that are important – service, school, socializing and more – but elevating the essential. Time with God is necessary. It is as essential as sleep, food, water and shelter. These are the things we cannot function without. We cannot survive without a relationship with Jesus, for that relationship is the source of our salvation, direction and righteousness.
This complex conversation between an aggravated sister and her Lord prompts me to ask about my own priorities and whether I am distracted and disturbed or at peace. Do I have a lack of focus on what is necessary? Do I have a lack of fellowship with God because I am so busy doing what is important but not essential? Am I consumed by the worries of this world that I am in danger of fruitlessly withering? Am I more like Martha or more like Mary? I wish there was a verse 43 in Luke 10 which stated that later in the evening Mary did the dishes and Martha sat at the Lord’s feet. While the scriptures are silent, I hope it to be true. Maybe we all could be both.
Serving, like Martha did, is a wonderful gift to those around us, but it may or may not have anything to do with our relationship with God. Building a relationship with God, like Mary did, will lead us to serve and be a blessing to those around us and a glory to God. Focusing on the necessary will give us all we need.
As I am sure you are aware, Rev. William (Billy) Franklin Graham reunited with His Savior on February 21st. Although I never met him, nor heard him speak in person, he was a co-founder and trustee emeritus of my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (and I have his signature on my degree). Billy Graham was instrumental in shaping evangelicalism in the 20th century: thousands heard and accepted the Gospel through the crusades he conducted across the globe, thousands more have been encouraged through his writings (including the co-founding of Christianity Today Magazine), and untold numbers of national and world leaders had sought his advice and counsel. He was a giant not only in the church, but in our culture. That being said, when I mentioned his passing at our dinner table, my 10-year old son, Joshua, had no idea who Billy Graham was.
Jump ahead a week. It is the night before the Oscars® and our family is watching what would ultimately be given the award for Best Animated Feature, Coco. The film’s storyline is simple (albeit contradictory to biblical truth): a boy, Miguel, raids a mausoleum to steal a guitar from his hero on Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) and is brought to the land of the dead, where he meets his ancestors and discovers a secret. One interesting aspect of the ‘other side’ that Miguel finds out as he is interacting with those who have passed is that you disappear when there is no one left who remembers your stories. According to the movie, when no one remains to remember your name, you cease to exist.
As great as Billy Graham (the man, the preacher, the writer or the friend) was, within a generation or two, he will be largely forgotten. And as harsh as that seems, the Bible concurs:
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:14 (NIV)
So, what does this say for me or for you? Maybe we are like lightbulbs – we shine for a while, but eventually we will cease to give light and we will be discarded. Maybe some of you are like lamps – useful for many cycles of lightbulbs, but still subject to the ravages of time and eventually replaced by a cheaper lamp from Ikea©. Whether a lightbulb or a lamp, we are merely a conduit for the electricity. Lightbulbs and lamps (like us) come and go, but the electricity (in this metaphor, the Lord God Almighty) remains.
Billy Graham was somewhat like a lighthouse lamp: strong, powerful, and steady in its purpose; but that light has gone. I pray another light will rise to take his place. While I, in comparison, may be a night light, I still can be strong, powerful, and steady in my purpose until I have been fully spent. Within a generation or two, I will likely be forgotten – a name on a list or a letter, an unfamiliar face in a yellowed photograph – but for now, let me make some impact and shed some light. Perhaps I could guide the next world-changer to avoid stumbling in the dark long enough to see the true Light of the world.
photo found on billygraham.org
Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. – Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
This past Wednesday was both Valentine’s Day (a celebration of romantic love) and Ash Wednesday (an observance marked by sacrifice). The juxtaposition of these seemingly diverse concepts got me thinking about one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. This 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner has everything a romantic date might want: maidens and pirates, swordfights and acts of revenge, rivalries and true love. Without giving away all the plot points of this 30-year-old cinematic gem, I will say that, with great sacrifice, love conquers all. Love and sacrifice, the perfect combination for those celebrating the full range of experiences observed on February 14, 2018.
One of the pivotal scenes is quoted above: our hero is tortured to death and all hope is lost, unless Miracle Max, a village magician, can bring him back to life. Needless to say, it works and Wesley, the movie’s Prince Charming, is given new life. It works because the hero was only mostly dead, not completely dead; he was still slightly alive. Death and life, the same combination that forms the tension found in the New Testament Scriptures. Those who lose their lives will gain it and those who want to save their lives will lose it, or so the Good Book says.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:6-7
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul tells believers that we have crucified – painfully killed – our old nature to do away with our bondage to sin. Unfortunately, many of us think that God is a bit like Miracle Max and that we can come to the God of creation in the state of “mostly dead” or “slightly alive” and think that we can be restored to wholeness. But that is simply not true. The prisoner with a life sentence does not receive a pardon because he is sick or because she is at death’s door. Our sin is not fully dealt with when we “mostly” remove it from our lives. We cannot fully enjoy our new life if we continue to hold onto a bit of our old one. Why would we want to try?
As we prepare for Easter with a season of sacrifice, allow me to remind all those who claim Christ as Lord to consider yourself dead to sin: have nothing to do with that old life, with its passions, powers and prizes. Consider yourself alive with new life in Him: embrace fully the pardon you have received, the gifts with which you have been graced and the peace you now enjoy. God is not Miracle Max; He is so much more, not only able to give us our lives back from the grave, but to transform us to be our greatest self.